Whither the World's Last Forest?
Brazil bets that it can save the Amazon wilderness while tapping its riches
The Amazon is not, and never has been, a pristine wilderness that could be fenced and preserved as an intact ecosystem. Increasingly, it is proving to be a resource-rich region of a continent that desperately needs to grow. Brazil, which contains most of the Amazon basin, is under particular pressure as it tries to reconcile its great disparities between rich and poor. And there's a voracious market for the goods, whether it's the Chinese buying steel or the Europeans buying soybeans. At the same time, the vast basin of freshwater and forest is a global feature of such magnitude that its destruction will only help tip a fragile global climate further over the edge. The hard question facing the various governments and organizations with a stake in the outcome is whether some development can prevent a lot of deforestation.
Every year a chunk of forest equivalent to an average-size U.S. state disappears from the Amazon. In the year ending August 2004, 16,236 square miles, about twice the size of Massachusetts, were deforested. According to Conservation International, that represents between 1.1 billion and 1.4 billion trees of 4 inches or more in diameter. This deforestation took place during a time of heightened environmentalism in Brazil, during a robust return to democracy when a comprehensive body of laws protecting the Amazon had been enacted and supported by broad enforcement powers—though often, not the enforcement itself. The reaction of the Brazilian government and nongovernmental organizations to these annual figures can be summarized by the Yogi Berra quote, "It's like d éjà vu all over again." The so-called experts annually express "shock and surprise" at the figures. The shock subsides, then reappears the following spring. Fingers point at the culprit du jour—the cattle ranchers in some years, or the soy farmers, or the migration of small families clearing homesteads. Loggers, miners, and ranchers get denounced regularly. And in response, the government usually sets aside another national park equivalent in size to a small American state. A federal department's budget gets increased by more than $100 million, at least publicly. A government official sometimes resigns. Nongovernmental organizations use the statistics in their annual pleas for contributions. The New York Times writes an editorial reminding Brazil that "the rain forest is not a commodity to be exploited for private gain." The Economist chides Brazil for its institutions, which are "weak, poorly coordinated, and prone to corruption and influence-peddling." But from one year to another, the process repeats itself and the Amazon shrinks. When we first traveled here in 1980, about 3 percent had been deforested. Today, more than 20 percent is gone.
That number needs some interpretation. Compared with the dire predictions of 25 years ago—that most of the forest would be destroyed by now—it actually looks good. And there's widespread acceptance that even more forest inevitably will be cleared. The problem is how that clearing is managed. Now it is haphazard and uncontrollable. The emerging consensus, at least among the key decision makers in Brazil, is that the solution is more development, not less. The argument is that development means civilization, which brings the resources to create better economic incentives and to enforce the laws. The downside is that if the Brazilian strategy doesn't work, it will be too late to change course.